Maud Hart Lovelace

by Joel Van Valin

Mankato is a wonderful town to grow up in. It is a wonderful town to live in. How fortunate that at intervals we pause to re-tell its story and bring our legends and traditions to fresh life!

- Maud Hart Lovelace, from an article in the Mankato Free Press on Mankato's centennial in 1952

The public library in Mankato has in its holdings, along with, of course, thousands of books, a certain glass pitcher. The pitcher was a gift to Maud Hart on her fifth birthday, from her friend Frances "Bick" Kenney. That birthday party would have taken place around 1897. Over forty years later the pitcher would re-emerge as Tacy's gift to Betsy in Betsy-Tacy, the first in a series of popular children's books by Maud Hart Lovelace. To Maud, fiction lay just this side of fact, legend only a step or two on from history, and a story was just a dressed up memory.

Memory is important in a place like Minnesota, which will turn a youthful 150 next year. That's not much time to build a new culture. Without a living memory, where do we turn for our legends and traditions? TV Land? To establish pedigree and propriety the early luminaries of our cities and towns papered over our colorful past of voyageurs, moonshiners, Dakota warriors and mixed-race Metis. Maud Hart Lovelace resurrected them.

Born in Mankato in 1892, Maud was only a generation or two removed from the early settlers, and the fur trading era the preceded them. Her father, a shoe store owner and later county treasurer, told her stories from the early days, like the one about the English aristocrats who settled in Martin county and were fond of fox hunting in their red coats. That legend became the basis of Gentlemen from England (1937), a novel she wrote with her husband Delos. Likewise an uncle's experiences in the opera led to The Black Angels (1926), a story about a singing school in early Mankato. Her most acclaimed historical novel, however, takes place at Fort Snelling and was inspired by the greatest legend of them all: a trader for the American Fur Company named Henry Hastings Sibley.

In Early Candlelight (1929) his name is Jasper Page and he is involved in two romances, first with an officer's wife at the fort, and later with a voyageur's daughter, Deedee DuGay, our heroine. The novel straddles the genres of the sentimental novel, in the tradition of Jane Austen, and romantic fiction in the style of Waverly and Last of the Mohicans. Readers of Regency romance will be familiar with Deedee's predicament-Jasper inhabits the polite society of officer dances, tea times and private libraries, while she lives in the impoverished, improvisational world of soldiers, voyageurs, Indians and Metis that populate the fort's underclass. Ah, how she sighs for love of him! And perhaps he... Nevertheless early Minnesota functions as more than scenery in Early Candlelight; most of the book describes work-a-day happenings, some involving historical characters like Major Taliaferro. Maud pictures his Council House with convincing accuracy:

It held a big American flag which the children liked to look at, and British flags, gorgets and medals which the Indians had reluctantly surrendered. Gifts from the Indians were displayed upon the walls. Major Taliaferro had a kindly tact. This was further evidenced by the absence of quills and inkstand. He did not flaunt their ignorance of penmanship in the faces of his Sioux.

Nor does Maud shy away from depicting out-of-wedlock marriages between Indians and whites, abject drunkenness from whiskey, violence, desertion, and the rest of the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of 1830s Minnesota. Yet at the center of the book is the strong, protective spell of the large and loving DuGay family. Like the Angel family in The Black Angels, they are a wild bunch:

Now Deedee was proud of being a `divil DuGay'. She knew it meant her father, old Denis, could fiddle; that her big brothers, Narcisse and Amable and Hypolite, could drink more grog without getting tipsy than any other voyageurs on the river; that her little brothers, George and Lafe, jigged for the officers and visiting dignitaries; that her mother cooked stews which the soldiers came and paid two shillings for, and was summoned to the post in great haste and excitement whenever a baby was expected.

Later in the novel the DuGays are ejected from the environs of the fort with the other squatters, and become part of that eclectic mix of retired voyageurs and soldiers, Metis, refugees from the Selkirk colony and other wanderers who follow Pig's Eye Parrant downriver to found St. Paul. Maud's own family moved to Minneapolis in 1910, and she attended the University of Minnesota (though she never graduated). In 1917 she met Delos Lovelace, then an officer in training at (where else?) Fort Snelling. They married in November of that year, just before Delos was shipped off to the war. In 1921 the couple moved to New York, and it was from this distance that Maud began writing her historical novels about Minnesota.

Maud and Delos planned to have a family, but their first child, a boy, lived only a few hours. Then, to their surprise, Merian was born in 1931. Her daughter was responsible for turning Maud's career in another direction, for it was the retelling of memories from her childhood in Mankato that inspired Betsy-Tacy. Betsy, Tacy, Tib, and most of the characters in the books are drawn more or less from real life. Betsy's family, the Rays, are Maud's own family (Mr. Ray even owns a shoe store); they are not as wild or romantic as the Angels or the DuGays, but the protective spell is still there.

The Betsy-Tacy stories are still remembered by those who read them as children, and in this sense Maud Hart Lovelace is not really a "lost" Minnesota writer at all. Early Candlelight and Gentlemen from England are also easy to find, thanks to reprints by the Minnesota Historical Society. Though not self-consciously literary, these novels are well-crafted and original works, providing clear, if slightly rose-tinted windows into early Minnesota. If her younger contemporary Meridel Le Sueur was right in saying that the function of the writer is to "mirror back the beauty of the people, to urge and nourish their vital expression and their social vision," in the case of Maud that mirror is one of memory. Her beauty lay in brightening the past, the stories and traditions of Minnesota and its people. The people most of all. Which brings us back to the legendary glass pitcher and Betsy's fifth birthday: "But the nicest present she received was not the usual kind of present. It was the present of a friend. It was Tacy."

2007 by Joel Van Valin.